You might assume all managers are the same until you get one who’s a little different. They seem to stand a little taller, listen a bit more intently and learn a smidgen more willingly than the other managers you’ve known. This person isn’t merely a manager — they’re a leader.
In some cases, the distinction between these two is all in how you see yourself as you lead others. Or, just as importantly, it might be about how your direct reports see you. If you’ve been wondering what separates the upper echelons of real leadership from the rest of the rank and file, here are seven ideas.
1. Leaders Have Followers
Managers have employees. And don’t think for a minute that this isn’t a critical distinction. People remain employees when they have a manager for a boss because a manager is somebody who teaches others how to win approval. But when people have a leader as a boss, they don’t learn how to follow a script, but rather to think for themselves and offer constructive ideas fearlessly. And when push comes to shove, a leader is somebody who inspires a love of the work and the process so intense that their team’s enthusiasm can’t help but positively reflect on that leader in any context.
2. Leaders Break Rules
Managers set guidelines. There will always be a place for propriety, decorum and coloring inside the lines. But one of the jobs of a leader is to open doors between their direct reports and the objectives they’re pursuing. That means lifting rules and restrictions on how teams get their jobs done — not putting additional ones in place. To put it another way, managers make rules, while leaders look for creative ways to responsibly break them.
3. Leaders Encourage Risk-Taking
Managers are risk-averse. What’s the difference? It lies in being able to trust a team enough that you’re willing to let them try something new, instead of running the same old plays time and again just because they’re “safe” and they “work.” There aren’t many organizations that have clawed their way to the top of their industries by doing things the same way, at the same time, for years and years. Instead, they try variations on themes — and then they try new ones altogether. The whole idea of organizing ourselves into companies and corporations in the first place is so our weaknesses average out and our strengths play off one another. So what good is a leader who stifles the drive in each of us to strike out in a new direction or attempt something familiar in a new way?
4. Leaders Prove Themselves Again and Again
Managers prove themselves just once — usually on the day they obtain that position of leadership. That might sound harsh, but the truth is, it’s all too easy for each of us to grow comfortable enough with our existing skills, competencies and knowledge that we stop growing and learning. But that’s not good for us as individuals, the organizations we represent or the teams we lead. Leaders are useful assets to have around because they’re not satisfied with the last milestone and because their drive to better themselves is infectious to others.
5. Leaders Sell a Vision
Managers sell jobs. Like we said earlier, sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. For some people, a job will never be anything more than what it is. But that can’t be the case for organizational leaders. Leaders are people who see the scope of what’s possible and then provide their direct reports with all of the practical and spiritual tools they need to succeed, like room and time to experiment, the right technologies or a change to their workday to create a better work-life balance. Where leaders operate like conductors, by slowly bringing the many parts together in service of an overarching vision, managers tend to lose themselves in the trees, making changes at the edges and focusing on details that seem important in the moment but don’t matter that much in the grander scheme of things.
6. Leaders See Opportunities
Managers see failure. Remember when we said much of this was a matter of perspective? Here is a prime example. When a plan doesn’t quite work out, or there’s a setback of another kind, one type of manager scrambles to assign blame or sweep the broken pieces under the rug before somebody notices. They only see something that went wrong. Instead, a leader treats each failure as an opportunity to learn something or pivot to something new. They see something that could succeed brilliantly the next time around. There aren’t any useless experiences — even the negative ones — as long as we impress them into service to improve ourselves and the groups we represent. There are lots of quotes about this idea, but here’s one we especially like: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience, is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility.”
7. Leaders Have Style
Managers copy and paste from other people’s styles. We’re not talking about the wristwatch or the shoes you wear. We’re talking about leadership style. Everybody who leads needs one. And if you’re a new leader yourself, this is something that comes with time if you work at it. In the meantime, it’s OK if you feel like a patchwork of ideas you’ve picked up from other leaders. If you want it, and you put in the time, these separate ideas you’ve picked up along the way to emulate will become your unique style of inspiring and bringing out the best in people. Be transparent, be authentic and be yourself. And always remember why there’s a difference between managers and leaders — and think about which you want to be.
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